UI alumna earns first Braille diploma

By Melissa Silverberg

In a professor’s office, the diplomas on the wall all look about the same – fancy writing, big words; but not Christie Lynn Gilson’s diploma.

With three diplomas on her wall, the University certificate she received in May is the first one she can actually read.

Gilson, a blind alumna, earned her Ph.D. in special education and is now an associate professor in the education department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.

Her diploma is printed in Braille.

Gilson’s Braille diploma was created by Bryan McMurray, vision and hearing coordinator in Disability Resources and Educational Services, and to Gilson’s knowledge is the first of its kind from the University.

Gilson said because she cannot read a printed diploma, she wanted the same ability as everyone else.

McMurray, also blind himself, has a close relationship with Gilson. This made her diploma that much more special as it was created by a friend.

“I wanted to make it as true to the diploma and real life as possible,” McMurray said.

“I wanted her to put her hands on the diploma and experience what her sighted peers would experience.”

McMurray said he probably put 20 hours of actual work into creating the diploma.

He also graduated from the University in the 1970s, but his diploma was not written in Braille.

“There is a certain bond that people that share your disability have,” Gilson said. “There is a part of our lives that very few people can relate to.”

Braille is not used as often by blind people anymore, Gilson said. New technology allows blind or low vision people to gain access to reading materials through computers with voice software that reads and transcribes information.

Listening to information all the time can have its downsides as well.

“If we just listen to books, we don’t know how to punctuate properly,” Gilson said. “So there is a price that’s paid.”

Also, blind people who read Braille are also employed at a higher rate than those who do not, she added.

When Gilson earned her degree, McMurray gave it to her in person – an emotional moment for both.

“It was well, well worth it. I would do it 100 times over for her,” McMurray said.

The special diploma is hanging on Gilson’s office wall for all her students to see.

“I showed it to another blind person and it gave her chills,” she said. “There is so little in this world that we can read, so when we find something we can read, we just devour it.”

The University degree is especially significant because Gilson worked so hard for it.

“I applied myself so diligently for this, and I wanted to be able to reflect on what it meant by reading those words,” Gilson said.

“I had no idea that it was such fancy language.”

Disability Resources and Educational Services offers many different services for blind or visually impaired students on campus, said Angella Anderson, disability specialist and supervisor of text conversion.

The service converts textbooks and other materials to Braille and also scans information to place online in an accessible format.

Large print books are also created for students with low vision. Tactile graphics are created for classes like chemistry and calculus that have formulas and equations, Anderson said.

“Students can also come to Disability Resources and Educational Services and take their tests with adaptive software or large print,” Anderson added.

With help from the services and McMurray, Gilson was able to not only complete her doctoral studies, but also walk away with a diploma she could really understand.

“It’s a great thing,” she added. “It’s cool to be able to read your own diploma.”